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Jai-Alai Thoughts and Hopes for 2002
by Todd Sorensen

Jai-Alai watercolorThe tail end of 2001 dealt several blows to the Jai-Alai industry. After December 12, live action ceased to exist in the state of Connecticut when the Milford Jai-Alai fronton played its last performance. Then, on December 16, there was the “throw heard ‘round the world.” Jai-Alai’s biggest superstar, Arriaga, was hit in the side of the face with the ball, fracturing his head in two places and putting him on the shelf indefinitely. The clincher came December 20 when Michelena, the sport’s living legend, announced he was retiring.

The three-year strike of 1988–91 forced the Hartford and Bridgeport frontons to close, leaving Milford the sole survivor in Connecticut. But dwindling fan base, Indian casinos, and the inability to take advantage of the growing simulcast market kept Milford Jai-Alai on shaky ground. In November 2001, the announcement came that many had feared for years, but thought would never happen: Milford Jai-Alai would cease to exist after December 12 and the land would be sold to developers.

December 16 was a normal Sunday for Arriaga—until game 14, when an errant rebote save ripped into the side of his face. It was the most feared injury in sports. The rock hard pelota crushed the side of his head with a 100 mile per hour impact. Jai-Alai’s top star was out on the floor. “I felt the impact, but not the pain,” said a shaken Arriaga a week after he was rushed to the hospital where a skilled ER team saved him from blindness and brain damage.

Michelena, touted as the Michael Jordan of Jai-Alai, announced his retirement from the sport on December 20. The ten-time Triple Crown Champion had amassed an unthinkable fifty-nine championships and 4,798 wins in his career and was the dominant force on the Jai-Alai court for almost twenty years. His decision was hastened by a serious shoulder injury.

What does the future hold for Jai-Alai? I don’t think Jai-Alai can, or will, die. The sport is one of the world’s oldest, in existence for hundreds of years. It’s been an integral part of Florida since 1926 when the first permanent facility opened in Hialeah, and continues to be an important part of the state’s culture to this day. Although the closing of Milford was shocking, there are positives. The fans that shed tears are now writing letters and letting their voices be heard. The Newport Grand fronton has installed slot machines to help business, and has acquired many talented players this year.

Dania and Miami have picked up the pace, working with venues in Connecticut to promote the sport and keep the fan base alive. They now broadcast all of their games live via Web-stream on the Internet, allowing both viewing and wagering. With the closing of Milford, the Dania and Miami pools are larger than they’ve been in many years—definitely a plus for the bettors.

Michelena may no longer be on the court, but now he moves to the Fort Pierce fronton as a coach and mentor to tomorrow’s stars. If just a little of him rubs off on young talent, the sport will be a better place tomorrow. And Arriaga will probably be back chasing his second Triple Crown by the time you read this. He has the heart of a lion, and was mentally back on the court the day after his injury.

Just as Arriaga can make an amazing comeback, so can the World’s Fastest Ballgame with creative marketing and steadfast resolve from the industry. Dania and Miami now have their largest pools ever so get on www.betdania.com and chase those trifectas. But most of all, have fun doing so!

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